Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kayayo Mosquito Net Distribution in Kumasi

I would like to share with you an article from our latest Gender and Youth Development newsletter. The author is the notorious Zoe Sugg, the previous volunteer of Jeyiri.

The Strength of a Woman: A Story of Kayayo
By Zoe Sugg PCV

Looking into my friend’s bloodshot eyes I can see that she is tired. She wipes the sweat from her brow with a dirty rag, and smiles at me as she rolls the cloth and strategically places it on her head. She calls three other women over to help her lift an enormous sack of onions. I watch her bend down as they lift the sack and I see that she has lost weight; her shoulders, back and arms are rock-hard. Once the sack is positioned comfortably on her head she turns and says she is “going to come;” I take a seat on a bench. Onlookers gawk at me, surprised to see a white lady amongst the grit and grind. It is an area of Kumasi called Racecourse; it looks very much like a shanty ghetto, the structures all made from rotting plywood and scrap metal; the environment is hot and crowded, dirt paths snake between shacks as though pedestrians have been cautious not to step in muddy patches and filth. litter covers every square foot of the ground..“I’m going to market in Wa” – that is what she told me before she left and never came back. Six months passed until I heard her voice again.
Currently a third-year PCV in Cape Coast, I served my first two years in a small village in the Upper West Region. The three northern regions, in comparison with the rest Ghana, are predominantly underdeveloped and deeply influenced by Islam. Most of the population is illiterate and their main livelihood is suste- nance farming. Through the circum- stances of poverty, lack of education and various social obstacles the women of the north are at a great disadvantage. Many of the young girls are discouraged to attend school as it is seen to be a waste of family resources (females are con- sidered more useful on the farm). And education isn’t seen as a way to feed hungry bellies – it is a long-term investment that many homes cannot afford. It’s not uncommon for fami- lies to participate in the tradition of marrying off their young daughters to remove the stress of another mouth to feed in an already-impoverished household.
When it comes to work, there is a noticeable difference in the amount women are expected to complete daily versus men. Both attend farm and have various jobs to complete, but women are also given the tasks of firewood collection, caring for
the children and bringing back the harvest. It is a rare thing to see a
man fetching water, but a woman can walk upwards of 10k each day with heavy loads on their heads. All of this is done with grace – a look of ease, even as they carry a newborn baby on their back.
Without education or money to change their situations, the only es- cape for many is taking a chance on Kayayo (traveling for work as porters in Kumasi or Accra). Women who re- turn to the village from working in the south walk taller; they come back in new clothes, lobes sparking with shiny earrings; they can afford the things they need to make life better; they don’t have to ask any man for coins – they have a better sense of independence and confidence. But not all Kayayo stories are so successful. The mere facts of being
a woman and a stranger to a large city can result in a completely differ- ent lifestyle than what they are used to in the village. Most of the girls head to Kumasi with the intention of making some quick cash and going home, but city life can catch them like a predator. Vulnerable, they get trapped into prostitution, drugs, and theft; it isn’t until they arrive that they realize how difficult it is. Many girls sleep on the street and they are highly competitive – doing whatever it takes to make more money, more money! Young guys who stay in
the area hustle and scam to make a buck, usually they take a liking to one of the girls. Offering security by providing a place to sleep (in his metal shanty hut) it isn’t hard sell to a girl who is used to the safety of her compound. He’ll begin to make more demands of her; using his shack as bait, the young girls fall into a trap they can’t get out of.
When my friend returned from off-loading the sack of onions she was able to sit with me. I was wor- ried, I had so many questions – I’d heard so many different stories about Kayayo, but I wanted to hear her story. Tagging along, her older brother helped with the translation; her particular job site was the most competitive – they had regular pay and could go home with seven, sometimes eleven, cedis per day. It was an area of Racecourse filled with cattle trucks, brimming with yams and onions. She told me that many women coming to work for the day couldn’t finish the job; that it’s only for the very strong. Women on the street aren’t strong enough to carry from the big produce trucks, she said, sometimes they can’t carry at all – they beg; only posing as Kay- ayo. For women begging to carry personal luggage or empty a cargo truck near a store, the competition is very serious. They’re not guaranteed a single Ghana cedi a day; worse, they sabotage each other – hiding one another’s silver basins, they make it virtually impossible to carry loads.
My friend’s job was to off-load bulk produce and carry it to vehicles transporting it to buyers (restau- rants, chop bars, and market sell- ers). She was saving her money in a communal Susu box – every day she would take what was needed for food and the rest would be put into savings. Though the work was hard, her situation sounded ideal and I wanted to see where she was lived; I hoped she wasn’t secretly living on the street.
We walked through the makeshift ghetto and reached a very old (prob- ably condemned) structure. Outside of the abandoned warehouse naked kids were running around; some women came in and out of the bath- ing area, others perched over TZ coal pots. We entered a long room lined with suitcases – clothes dried on crisscrossed lines; prayer mats were propped or spread out; empty bowls lay everywhere. As I walked in women began to shout my local name – they were from my commu- nity – with true joy they rushed for- ward and hugged me, offering me a spot on their prayer mats and calling their new friends to meet me. I was bombarded by greetings. Many from my village asked to call their hus- bands or parents, some hadn’t been in contact for months; my phone was passed around and my credits finished in no time.
The warehouse was simply a trans- plant of village life; women had divided themselves by language and took turn babysitting and cook- ing – they created their own com- munity. As a custom of greeting, my friend came to bring me water; I sat with women hovering over me until the excitement died down. Soon
my friend was able to get back to her story; she’d seen girls leave the warehouse to move in with boy- friends, thinking they had made it big. Those who didn’t make enough during the day would try to make money at night; this I took to mean prostitution. She promised me she didn’t plan to do that; her goal was to save enough money to sustain her once she returned to the village. She considered herself a divorced woman, only thinking for herself and her children; she missed them ter- ribly. This took place about a year ago and my friend has since returned to Wa; she is no longer with her hus- band and is living a life independent of him. She took the money she earned and is now an apprentice at her aunt’s seamstress shop. Though her experience turned out well, not everyone is so lucky. Education in HIV prevention is important, but efforts also need to be put into helping safeguard these women in large and dangerous cit- ies; resources need to be invested in accommodating their transient sta- tus, instead of allowing them to be subjected to street life. Something as simple as open communication has the potential to go a long way in improving their lives; it’s only when they become isolated from their fam- ily and homes that they are truly in danger. The issue with Kayayo is not that women run off to Kumasi and end up in prostitution; it’s about women seeking independence through financial security. In a society that makes them feel inferior, incapable of bettering themselves, this is often their only choice. These women are courageous, driven, strong, and intelligent – they know they’re going into a hard life, but they weigh the risks versus the opportunies if they stay. The work these women do is vital – a good portion of the economy is carried on their heads – and un- less the financial and cultural situa- tion in the northern regions changes drastically, Kayayo is inevitable. What needs to happen now is the investment in keeping them safe.

These are the women I worked with for a week during the Long Lasting Insecticide Net (LLINs) distribution in Kumasi. This was a ProMPT-Ghana (Promoting Malaria Prevention and Treatment) initiative and funded by USAID.  Stomp out Malaria is the Peace Corps group supporting this program in which I am involved.

Previous to my arrival, PCVs along with Ghanaian volunteers went house to house and registered the Kayayo. Sleeping groups were given a ticket with a day, time and location to pick up their net.  My job was supervisor of Sylvester and Afia, Ghana nationals, from 8am-3pm at Roman Hill Street Children Project in Kumasi. Educational videos of malaria facts and care of the LLINs were shown and discussed with each group of Kayayo coming in.  The first day we quickly realized that our target group 1) couldn’t read the tickets, 2) were busy during the day, 3) didn’t believe they were going to get a free net, 4) generally didn’t trust the program. At Roman Hill tickets for 90 nets a day were handed out. In reality the distribution was about 30 nets a day.
A new plan was devised, a night distribution in the neighborhoods of the Kayayo. This would serve as an advertisement for the nets and encourage the people to come to the daytime locations.  I don’t know if the new strategy got more people to the distribution points. The first week was generally slow. The overall success of the project is hard to determine. We can only hope that the Kayayo are using the nets properly and consistently for their own health.

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